Portishead's long–awaited third album has been one of the artistic highlights of 2008. The band's unique blend of lo–fi and hi–fi, vintage and modern is reflected in their unique approach to recording.
Portishead's third studio album may have taken a little time to arrive — over 10 years had elapsed after their eponymous second — but for a good chunk of the record–buying public, the wait was hugely worthwhile.
Beth Gibbons and Geoff Barrow started the band in the early '90s as a two–piece, but quickly brought in long–time muso Adrian Utley as co–producer, musician and arranger, and eventually he became a permanent part of the band. He is now the closest thing Portishead have to a public voice, and also loves performing live ("For me, it's joyous to play live, because I've spent most of my life doing it, from when I was 17, playing in Country & Western bands or whatever."). Geoff would probably rather avoid it if at all possible, and Beth is ambivalent, hating the idea but then usually being inspired by actually doing it.
Each of the three members has a studio in Bristol, and material is swapped between them, talked about, reworked, talked about some more, and then often enough put aside for a few years. Logic, Pro Tools and perhaps surprisingly, IZ's Radar hard disk recorder are the main recording tools and means of sharing tracks.
Beth Gibbons' studio is in her home, and centres around a beautiful vintage Trident desk, with a setup Adrian calls "succinct and powerful". Geoff Barrow's State of Art is a partly commercial studio which he liked so much he became co–owner of it. A lot of Dummy and practically all of the second album were recorded there, and he also uses it to record sessions for his record label.
Adrian Utley's studio, meanwhile, has an enviable outlook at the top of a five–storey Georgian townhouse perched a couple of hundred feet above the centre of Bristol. The attic space has been converted into a drum room, with angled walls producing a nice acoustic thanks to there being hardly any parallel surfaces. Unlike most booths, which are generally claustrophobic affairs, there is a huge amount of light, and, on the other side of the stairwell, a balcony with a stupendous view of the city and the hills beyond. Adrian can point out interesting features of the skyline, such as the remains of an ancient hill fort, a great gig venue, or the areas where various other Bristol musicians live or have studios. The drum room is used for immediacy's sake to record Geoff's playing, which can then be replaced if necessary at State of Art; it can serve as a guitar booth as well, and houses a superb collection of Tibetan singing bowls, ready for a future project now that the majority of the Portishead work is over for the time being.
In the stairwell are a few of Adrian's amps, and, typically, he is as keen for a photo to be taken of the crappy Zenta as of the beautiful, collectable WEM Westminster. Everything has its uses: Adrian has used the WEM on many things, often putting some reverb into the chain before the amp, but has regularly recorded the Zenta too, for instance during sessions with the Coral — on keyboards as well as guitar.
Utley's choice of instruments and equipment to use is geared very much around what is useful for a particular circumstance, not what is most expensive or precious. So although his favourite guitar is a Fender Jazzmaster, he uses whatever instrument fits the project. Alongside a Jaguar with all strings tuned to E, which he used to play with Glenn Branca, Thurston Moore et al at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival Portishead curated last December, there's a cheap old beginner's acoustic that has featured on more than one Portishead track.
On the next floor down is the main studio, with another big old Trident desk (a Series 75, a little later than Beth's, and not quite as nice, Adrian admits). Sitting at it, with the view out through a huge bay window, is as far removed from the claustrophobia of some control rooms as is possible to imagine. One wall has a selection of modular and other synths, which will eventually be sitting on a Dexion framework. "Tomita had Dexion for his Moogs and all his stuff, and Edward Williams [one–time owner of EMS] used Dexion for the wheeled trolleys he had for his performances. Like something out of Doctor Who — and everything had Dymo tape on it. Mine will come out on wheels, so I can get round the back and also get it round the mixer area to record."
Despite other buildings being attached, noise isn't a problem. "The neighbours on one side make more noise than I do, because they've got kids who play drums and guitar and saxophone and stuff — but I love it. And the other neighbours are fine." Maybe it would be more of a problem if Adrian were recording some of his favourite grindcore bands there, but the studio is used for slightly gentler projects.
The synth area includes an old Minimoog, a bit battered and out of calibration, but well–loved, not least because it has Bob Moog's signature on the top rail. ("He was a lovely man," says Adrian.) It sits on top of a Philicorda, and next to it is another gem, an EMS VCS3 that was one of Ed Williams' own machines, complete with practically all the mods EMS ever sanctioned. Williams is another Bristolian, one of the older mainstays of the local music community.
The 11 songs on the new album reflect the band's eclectic nature perfectly, employing a huge range of instruments and studio techniques.
"This had to go first because it has the Portuguese introduction about the number three. Geoff had a sample of a voice from a record, talking Portuguese, introducing a band. It kind of glued the track together and started it, and we liked it. Geoff discovered something about the Wiccan theory of three — do three good things and three good things will come back to you, related to the idea of bad luck coming in threes (without getting deeply into it) — so we wrote a sort of small manifesto, and got this Portuguese guy from Bristol to translate it, and recreated the sample, but with him speaking different words.
"The song itself was started by Beth. An arpeggiated piano thing which is really beautiful — the timing is quite odd, there's bars of six, bars of four, bars of two, the cut–up of it is quite weird — and we messed about a long time on that before we came up with a way of playing it. Beth doesn't start singing for a long time. There's a mad guitar improvisation, which was out of time, and the echoes are out of time. So many records have perfectly timed echoes, it was interesting to make things not in time, obtusely different from the perfect triplet echoes you can set up if you want. So the sound of the whole thing is deliberately harsh straight away.
"There's a huge drama change when her voice does first come in. The drums drop out, and you're left with this echoey pick bass. Then the abrupt end: Geoff's idea, but it reminded me of compilation tapes, and of the jazz drummer Tommy Chase who I worked with for two years. He used to make me tapes of stuff he wanted me to learn, and as soon as it got past the bit he was interested in, it would just end."
"That's been around a long time, and we feel it's more a traditional Portishead track in a way. The bell–tree and oboe and strings were influenced by this mid–'60s psychedelic folk record we liked. Beth put a beautiful song onto it, then it hung around for years. We just started adding stuff to it. That irrelevant — no, weird — bendy guitar in the middle sections just popped out one day here. It's just an old fuzz box, and bending the string. The arpeggiated, echoed organ break reminds me of Steve Reich or something. It was Beth's Farfisa from her studio. I think that was recorded in State of Art. Most of the rest of it was recorded here — the big orchestral bass drum, and the bell tree. Then Geoff put some drums on at the end at State of Art."
- 'Nylon Smile'
"Another old track. I wrote the guitar part on Dartmoor, and Beth wrote this song, and it hung around for ages because it sounded a bit miserable and folky; then at the last minute it became this backward–guitar Moondog thing. It ends abruptly. When Beth gave me the track back after I'd given her the layout of guitar, it turned out she had sung over it, and the track had run out, and she had carried on singing until she'd ended. We always liked that, so we used it on the final version."
- 'The Rip'
"That's a really cheap four–quid acoustic guitar that I picked up in a junk shop. But it had a good sound. Then I had some work done on it for 25 quid, so you could actually play it. It's steel strings, but a little budget kids' guitar.
"The 'sequence' isn't sequenced at all — it's chopped–up audio, played in bits and dropped in. I was trying to get the analogue sequencers to play the arpeggios, but just couldn't do it, because the chords change. Geoff came up with this double–time beat. The problem with it had been that it was always too slow. We used to have an 808 classic old–school hip–hop beat, but that sounded a bit ordinary. We're always fighting against sounding like what we used to do, or sounding ordinary; so Geoff took it into another world. And while I was prattling on about sequencing, Geoff borrowed my Siel, and just played it — learnt the shape of the first chord, stopped, dropped in, learnt the shape of the second chord, and so on. There's a bassoon, too, and some other stuff: a little synth that comes in at the end, that we put on in the mix. It sounded like it needed something else, and I had my MS20 there, so I just put it on with it."
"This originally came from Beth, probably on piano. Those are pretty much the chords she'd written. I played around on guitar till I got a theme–y thing. Then we had the ARP 2600 doing the helicopter sound — a bit like Apocalypse Now. I do love that ARP synth, it's been on a couple of things. There was a big argument about the chorus. Beth felt like it should sort of fall off a cliff, and it went through many guises. It ended up with some acoustic guitar like a Morricone guitarist, banging the guitar while holding a chord, so you had this very understated drone of a chord but more of a banging tonal sound. So that ended up in it, amidst the mess that's there! Geoff put a funny little arpeggiated keyboard part on the end, which is really good. We're all swapping round more on instruments — Geoff plays bass sometimes; Beth plays electric guitar on 'Threads'."
- 'We Carry On'
"It's different from anything we've done before. It's kind of influenced by Silver Apples, with the oscillators and stuff, with that mad buh–duh–buh–duh beat. Definitely rough, but with the 4/4 bass drum, and that bass line, we had to be careful. The slightest movement of the filter and it ends up sounding like terrible house! It's a departure for us, it's fast, a very different beat, but it's something we had to do. We couldn't be going back to our old world. Beth's way of singing is incredibly different on it.
"We're all of us trying to change, really. Still in our world but further down the road we've been travelling. And people say the guitar is Joy Division–y. Just rough — by choice. Detuned Harmony kid's guitar through a shitty little amp. We're always looking for limited frequency in instruments, something with a fog around it that glues it into a track so it doesn't stand out. Limited playing, too. I pursued virtuosity for many years, learning scales and harmony, and being able to improvise through scales and chords, but technique isn't important for me any more."
- 'Deep Water'
"Geoff came over and said he'd seen Steve Martin's The Jerk, and there was an amazing track on ukulele, with a trumpet solo, and we needed something like that on the album. I said he had to be fucking joking. I called it 'The Jerk–Off' for ages — it's still on the board as that. I wrote this ukulele part, and Beth wrote the song, but I couldn't get with it at all, didn't like it. Geoff said he wanted to put these backing vocals on it, and I said I was having nothing to do with it. We didn't argue, I just conceded on that. But now I really quite like it, and the funny thing is Geoff is moving the other way on it."
- 'Machine Gun'
"I had a dream that we had these really hard analogue sequences, this chopped–up, brutal kind of noise. Geoff and I talked about it, but this came from him. He's very original with his beats. We sampled a terrible old organ [an Orla Tiffany 4]. Beth wrote this hymn–like song which contrasts with the brutal beats. Then it ends with that John Carpenter kind of synth — that's the Siel Orchestra. I'd love to see an American marching band do it."
"It's in three or four sections. It starts with acoustic guitar and Beth, then something almost like a cello comes in, from my ARP with extra filters and modular stuff, with a joystick that controlled the harmonics, like if you're bowing a cello. Then it goes into a rhythmic drum & bass groove, which was actually the original part of the track, and Geoff put some organ to it, and I added psychedelic guitar. Then it drops back to Beth with the ARP and the guitar."
- 'Magic Doors'
"Geoff did the track while he and I were on tour, and Beth whizzed in with another song from somewhere else, and sung it over the top, and it worked. It has backward piano and stuff. And we added hurdy–gurdy from our friend Stu Barker, and Will Gregory [of Goldfrapp] played baritone sax on it. That's what he started on, sax — and we made him be a free jazz player that day. Will and I have played together for years — I have tapes of us playing jazz from 1989. He used to play with Michael Nyman and the London Sinfonietta, and he played sax and oboe on our New York orchestral gig. For this, we told him just to go fucking mad, to freak the fuck out. He had to move out of the room, so we couldn't see him, so he'd feel less inhibited."
"This is the only track with Clive and Jim playing. It was originally Beth's guitar line, which she played and then chopped up in Logic. And we talk about all this equipment here, these beautiful Calrecs that everything was recorded through, and the fantastic compressors and stuff and she just stuck the guitar straight into the computer, and it sounds cool. We had to EQ it, but it's a sound, and it sounds great. The bass line is three across four, always pushing, like a very slow triplet over the four, and it has this push all the time. And there's a soprano saxophone solo from Will.
"The end is really the first time Beth has ever really cut loose and hammered it. All the meters were, like, whoa, banging on their endstops. She can sing incredibly loud and powerfully. So there's that, which is like an improv, really, and there's Geoff shouting. We were using my Clavioline, out in the room next door, with no carpet, and I'd put a Bollywood–style echo on it. Every time he talked I thought it sounded better than the line. So me and Stu in the control room just told him to shout. Then it goes into this Viking horn of doom at the end. That's a guitar with the whammy bar and a fuzz box and an Altiverb reverb, one of these massive spaces — and there's some VCS3 on the track as well, like Hawkwind. I remember seeing them in 1975 at Reading Festival, and there were these unearthly noises, so loud and so unbelievable."
"We did most of the vocals on a Rode NTK valve mic, even though Beth has a beautiful Soundelux, and I have a lovely valve Neumann U47 we've used on tons of stuff. We took those and an AKG C414, which we traditionally used on Beth's voice, compared them all, and ended up using the Rode — two or three hundred quid's worth, with a bog–standard valve in it, not modded at all. (I have a pair of Oktava MK219 mics, and there's a guy who mods them, and for a couple of hundred dollars more, you can really bring them up to scratch, and get rid of weird tones but I actually like the weird tones, and I love those Oktava mics.)"
A lot of the echo on Beth's vocals on Third comes from a Great British Spring, the spring reverb from the late '70s housed in a 120cm–long plastic drainpipe, which is suspended horizontally underneath one of the studio shelves; and at the other extreme, some other reverbs and spaces came from Pro Tools and Altiverb. "Altiverb is amazing," says Adrian. "It's got some brilliant spaces in it, incredible springs, and reverb chambers from the LA studios the Beach Boys used to use."
For general tone and feel, Adrian Utley has a huge amount of vintage gear, which is pressed into service as often as possible — Neumann and Calrec EQs, Pye, Urei and Teletronix compressors and limiters, a pair of Neve 1272 preamps, Astronic graphic EQs, Vortexion and Binson four–channel mixers — the Vortexion signed by Tom Jones after a session that blew Adrian away with the power of his voice. There's also an Ursa Major Space Station SST–282 from the late '70s, the one with the preset called 'Fatty'.
More recent outboard includes Thermionic Culture's Phoenix valve compressor and Culture Vulture valve overdrive, BSS DPR402, and SPL's Transient Designer 2, and, from an earlier era, but a recent acquisition, a Yamaha SPX90, bought from a BBC engineer after the recent Later sessions for £80. "You can arpeggiate with the pitch–shift, and I really like the graininess. It's probably derived from a later SPX model, but I really like the effects in my Yamaha 02R, as well."
A Portishead performance is always an event, and the band have been unusually active on the live front this year. "It's the same line–up as in the past," explains Adrian Utley. "Clive Deamer is on drumkit (and the back of a guitar for 'Nylon Smile'). John Baggott is on keyboards — Akai sampler, Fender Rhodes, Hammond clone, Siel Orchestra, Minimoog, Roland SH09 for the Theremin-type sounds (which I did on SH101 for Dummy and then on an SH09 live, then a Mini). Jim Barr is on bass — and guitar, because there's quite a lot of double guitar parts, and even Minimoog on 'We Carry On'. Geoff [Barrow] stands up playing drums. He's got a cocktail kit, which was a bit of a revelation, really. There's a stand–up kind–of tom, that's long, with a bass drum pedal which hits the bottom of the tom, and the top is like a floor tom. They often come with a little snare and crappy stuff, but he's added a proper snare, and he uses trigger pads.
"Everything is played live, even 'Machine Gun'. Geoff plays the duh–duh–duh–duh–duh–duh, but when it goes into the flanged bit, he has to use another hand to adjust the flange, so he put it in as a triggered sample, so he doesn't have to do it double handed. That's the only, sort of, concession."
Why not get the front–of–house guy to tweak the effect? "Because you want to interact with it yourself. A lot of our effects aren't done front–of–house, they're done on stage. All the echoes, except the vocal echoes, are done on stage, because we can play to it and react to it. It's very important for us that we have control of the sound, so that we make the sound, and the PA just makes it louder. We have two PAs — one for the whole band, one solely for Beth [Gibbons], high up on the truss, so you can really hear the voice, without us having to turn the whole rig down or her having to sing loud, which would change the voice.
"There's no click track, but we have metronomes with a light — and Clive has one which he can put his thumb on and feel the pulse. We need it because on something like 'The Rip', which starts with an acoustic guitar, and is quite a laid–back thing, the tendency for me and Beth is to pull back; but then once the 'sequence' comes in, it feels like it's speeding up too much — not cool like the White Stripes speeding up and slowing down, just wrong! So we had to keep a pulse going. Geoff did that particular one. And I've got the metronome to look at. We can ignore it, but at least you start out at the right pace. But in the old days when Geoff was putting things like long horn parts in from decks, we had to be more strict about tempo.
"We still use a lot of old technology, though we've changed as well. I now use a Moog Voyager, while in the past I would have used a Minimoog. I had a very stable one; but I really like the Voyager. I think it's a fantastic instrument, especially in a live situation, where I can flip from one mad sound to another really easily. I use it with Roland MIDI bass pedals as well. I used to use Elka pedals for bass, but realised I could hook the Roland up to the Voyager and play top lines as well. I use a Line 6 echo simulator. I've got an Echoplex which I just didn't want to take out — I thought it would break like everything seems to. I kind of regretted that, but I think the digital simulation of stuff is almost there now, especially in a live situation. Those Hammond clones sound great, and the Leslie simulations. I mean, if you were playing with Bob Marley or something, I would absolutely insist on having a real Leslie and Hammond, for proper Hammond playing — you'd hear the difference; but with us, it's so distorted, or echoed, and although in reality it does make a difference to use real instruments, our keyboard tech Hughie was forever taking our Vox organs apart (and eventually we sacrificed one to keep the other alive). I would have a Leslie too, which I'd play my guitar through, so we had two Leslies miked up, and they were constantly breaking. So although John wasn't too happy about it, we thought it wasn't worth the effort, because the simulators for us seemed to work well enough, although we are hardcore analogue fans. It's like I wouldn't bring the modular on tour. It's not a compromise, it's a creative decision.
"There's quite a lot of VCS3 malarkey on Third, so I programmed sounds on my Voyager which were like it, and also sampled a couple of them so Geoff could play them off the pads — one of the particularly weird hissy oscillator pulse things, for instance, and added quite a lot of white noise in to make it sound like it was off a record.
"Geoff has CD decks for the old stuff, but he's not very happy with them — there's a bit of slack. They're not really like vinyl, but vinyl is a problem, with the stage jumping, or with them warping under the lights. I think it's quite cool to have a CD, to be able to burn it and use it immediately. We used to have vinyl cut of our own material. There's loads of them on the shelf in the studio here. But that would cost us, and there was a time thing too. Now we can do it really quickly."